What will you remember about 2020? I’ll think about how the pandemic fundamentally transformed entire segments of the cold chain seemingly overnight. Some changes were positive, like record sales of retail cold foods, and the explosion of e-commerce/direct-to-consumer (DTC) deliveries as a viable option for consumers.

Other changes were devastating. Foodservice in all its high-volume forms, like restaurants, bars, hotels, stadiums, catering, events, and more, either ceased to exist or morphed into a hybrid delivery/takeout/drive-through model that few can make profitable long-term. As a result, foodservice distributors have scrambled as well to redefine themselves amid the chaos.

The pandemic also proved that until automation is overwhelmingly assigned the majority of labor duties in processing plants, warehouses and logistics, employees are still responsible for keeping a company’s lights on, so to speak, and that their health should be the #1 priority for any business.

Those companies that took precautions and showed patience to ensure staff health through daily testing, screenings, and modifying workspaces for proper distancing, were rewarded with continuous production during a monumentally busy time. Those that took employee health for granted—putting production above all else—suffered with infected team members, plant shutdowns and a tarnished reputation among clients and customers.

A more positive memory from 2020 is companies giving back to their communities during the pandemic through donations of food, volunteers, scholarships, and more. In fact, since March, I’ve received nearly as many press releases about cold chain philanthropy as I have about new products on the market—likely the first time that has happened in R&FF’s 30-year history.    

The pandemic exposed holes in the cold chain that required a perpetual triage mindset to repair. There was never enough time to strategize and develop a plan in response to a problem, test it, and carefully implement it over a period of weeks—most changes needed to be made with near-immediacy or suffer the consequences.

COVID-19 is still here, but cold chain companies are not in the same place as March. Making rapid decisions about crucial business situations has become the real “new normal” with coronavirus as the accelerator. Many companies that have been through this crucible have come out stronger as a result.

 We’re already seeing 2021 start to take shape, with increased cold storage construction nationwide being the barometer for where the industry is headed. A COVID-19 vaccine requiring end-to-end temperature control will be another factor testing current cold chain logistics and infrastructure. I’ll let you know how that story ends in next December’s Cold Corner.